Prior to the emergence of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN), there used to be four workers union in the Nigerian maritime industry.
One of them was the Dockworkers Union of Nigeria (DUN). The DUN was so powerful that it took a very determined Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) to get its buy-in for the four bodies to merge into what is now known as the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria.
To underscore its strength, the first President General of the MWUN (Comrade Uzoije Ukaumunna) was a dockworker.
He ruled over the union for many years, turning dockworkers to demigods in the ports, so powerful was he that he could order that a particular ship must not berth.
He and of course, dockworkers were so powerful that Government, realised that for its port reform programme to succeed, it must reform the union.
The removal of the Ukaumunna-led executives was reportedly based on petitions from users and providers of port services to the effect that the leadership of Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria had become a near terrorist organisation; intimidating shipping companies, harassing the management of Nigerian Ports Authourity (which was at that time, the master stevedore) and also intimidating other groups. Before coming to the present, let us reminiscence on some of the perceived attributes of the Nigerian dockworker, prior to port concession.
They were seen to be very violent, and always agitated. They were perceived as being largely illiterate. In the area of employment, they had no identifiable employer that can be held accountable for their remuneration. In the area of their activities in the ports, the union and its members had free access to cargoes on board ships. Sometimes, they pilfer too or forcefully take portions of such cargoes.
Importantly too, one sharp practice that was prevalent was Akugbe (a local coinage for defrauding the cargo handing companies and stevedoring companies).
The union leaders were directly involved in placement of dockworkers at the various terminals. For doing this, the leadership (or more precisely the President General) put less men on the job, collected wages for the men, paid them what he felt was okay for them and pocketed the rest.
Surprisingly and sadly too, the average dockworkers had to live with it.
It was the era where naked force and brute ruled. The PG of the MWUN, the branch President and on to the leader of the various lower echelon were lords; unquestionable! Now, to the present. Arguably, the port concession effectively addressed all the above issues, especially the issue of employment and payment of wages to dockworkers. We no longer hear of dockworkers being owed, until recently when the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria screamed that is members who work in the facilities of International Oil Companies have not been paid for more than one year.
The union, last week shot operations at all the nation’s seaports. The strike was suspended on Friday, after the action had caused the nation billions of Naira. The MWUN is in dispute with the International Oil Companies (IOCs) over alleged non-payment of revenue accruable to stevedoring contractors that had been approved by the Federal Government to work at the facilities belonging to the multinational oil companies. Members of the union (dockworkers) are employed by stevedoring contractors to work to work at the oil companies’ facilities.
The PG of MWUN, Comrade Adewale Adeyanju put the plight of the affected dockworkers in perspective when he said: “Affected Dockworkers are suffering; some have even passed on prematurely due to economic hardship, whilst some have been made to become destitutes.” “As a responsible Union, we cannot continue to fold our arms and watch our members die premature death because of the nonchalant attitude of the IOCs Management towards the welfare of our members”.
While not encouraging a relapse to the pre-port concession orientation of the dockworkers, we haste to say that if it were in those dark years, the whole world would have felt the direct impact of last week’s strike.
Yes, it is true that Nigerian dockworkers are now reformed, if not, the Executive Director who came to address the embittered workers would have been attacked, yes, maritime workers (especially dockworkers) strike were never peaceful, they were indeed violent.
Since the exit of Ukaummunna Uzoije, and the emergence of Onikolease Irabor , unto to Tony Nted Emmnanuel and to the incumbent Adewale Adeyanju, Nigerian dockworkers have witnessed attitudinal change. And that was why it was easy to get them to suspend the strike on Friday.
We urge all those who were involved in persuading the workers to suspend the strike, to redouble their efforts and ensure that the IOCs do not push the workers back to the trenches. We think that the relevant organs of the Federal Government should hold the foreign companies accountable for the unpaid wages.
There is a contractual agreement between the companies and the stevedoring contractors who are the employees of the dockworkers. This agreement is not different from the ones that the IOCs had with the previous companies, so why should they continuously renege, even after the intervention of the Nigerian Ports Authourity.
Now is the time for NIMASA to work closely with the NPA to ensure that the IOCs are made to pay. It is also apt that the union stands by its members. We don’t expect that the union should accept any half measure, the MWUN must insist that its members get their wages correctly and as at when due.